This Pulitzer Prize winning novel seems tailor made for these days. The title refers to a teacher’s comment in the book on how our brain, locked in our skulls without a spark of light, is building a bright world for us. And today, we, locked out, can rebuild in our imaginations Paris of the 1940s and the “open air fortress” of Saint-Malo. We do this in part in the mind of young Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, who finds her way using the scale models that her brilliant father built for her. The characters of the busy Breton city come to life and the hearts of the readers go to Marie-Laure and the young German counterpart Werner who face a world of hatred and horror with grace and integrity
Némirovsky, a French writer of Ukrainian Jewish origin, has planned a sequence of five novels taking place in Nazi-occupied France. The first two, handwritten in a leather-bound notebook, survived his arrest and murder in Auschwitz. Preserved – but not read – by her daughter, they languished for six decades before being published in a single volume in 2004. La Suite Française offers an astonishing backdrop and an unwavering look at France and the French. The first part, Storm in June, deals with a cast of Parisians fleeing Paris while the Germans invade. However, the second part, Dolce, could evoke memories of small stone towns where we have dinner and a summer stroll, but which, we know, would be a claustrophobic nightmare to live – as the fictional town of Bussy is for Lucille, sharing a house with her spiteful stepmother. The place where the girls of the village chat with the soldiers could be the place de la Mairie in a hundred villages from Normandy to Provence.
This 1985 masterpiece takes us to a Paris very different from the City of Lights today. In the eighteenth century in France “reigned in the cities a stink hardly conceivable for us modern men and women … Even the king himself stank, stank like a lion of rank, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. ” Around this smelly world prowls the gifted and abominable Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, with his “killer” smell. However, those who know the first district of the city can follow in their minds “So deeply felt the district between Saint-Eustache and the Town Hall that he could find himself there during a dark night. Grenouille then leaves Paris and heads south via the hills of the Massif Central. The final chapters of the book take place a few kilometers from the French Riviera – in the middle of the lavender fields of the world perfume capital, Grasse.
Located in modern Paris, this 2006 novel by a professor of philosophy will appeal to those in need of a dose of Gallic high culture, with an unlikely heroine in the form of an allegedly lackluster janitor Renée. Echoing Jane Eyre’s “poor, obscure, simple and small”, Renée is “widow, short, ugly and plump”, and as such, she feels she must hide her passion for philosophy and literature under a thorny exterior. So, while pretending to favor TV in the trash and junk food, she reads Proust and volumes of philosophy from the university library, watches arty films and prepares refined dinners for her friend Manuela. There is a keen sense of humor as he dissects French snobbery, the weaknesses of the rich and the poor, the purpose of art and much more, while taking his intellectualism lightly.
Go on a French literary road trip with this black satire from the former restaurant critic Observer. History sees the evil narrator Tarquin (not his real name) – an anglophobic, francophile, inveterate snob and worse – driving from England to his home in Provence, with diversions through the cuisines of Normandy and Brittany. What he later qualified as “gastro-historical-psycho-autobiographico-anthropico-philosophical lucubrations” are organized into seasonal menus. He warned early on that “this is not a conventional cookbook”. Here he organizes a barbecue for his unfortunate victims: “A drop of watering juice fell from the bar and spurted on the white charcoals. I could hear the not quite subliminal ringing of the bubbles in our crystal champagne flutes. “Well now,” I said. ” It’s very nice. “Make no mistake, this delicious novel is nothing pleasant.
This 1954 classic from an 18-year-old girl takes us to the sunny Riviera, where Cécile, a lazy and selfish 17-year-old, spends her vacation with her widowed father and his last girlfriend. The bright light of summer goes hand in hand with a shady morality, while Cécile plots with her older boyfriend to see the new woman in the life of his father, a woman who would try to curb his indulgence and even make him do school work. Everything is horribly bad, but we still don’t know if Flighty Cécile learned something from her first experience of sadness. “I saw an exquisite pink and blue shell at the bottom of the sea. I dived for it, and held it smooth and hollow in my hand all morning. I decided it was a lucky charm and that I would keep it. I’m surprised I didn’t lose it because I lose everything. Today it is still pink and warm because it rests in my palm and makes me want to cry. “
By taking the A11 in the direction of Brittany and Vendée, many holidaymakers stop in Chartres, with its cathedral, its medieval houses and its small bridges. Spend a few happy hours in this picturesque place on the banks of the Eure river, plunging into this almost magical tale of the therapist turned novelist Vickers, whose books display a “tenderness for the maladjusted”. The protagonist is the mysterious Agnès Morel, who cleans the cathedral every day and does small jobs for people living nearby – until an accidental encounter. The outcome of its troubled past takes the reader to other historic French cities – Évreux, Rouen and Le Mans – before reaching its redemptive conclusion.
Jean de Florette by Marcel Pagnol
The fierce sun of Provence beats against this novel of country life and intrigue. Indeed, those bright blue skies and those cloudless days that many Britons travel south to feel like a curse for eponymous, hunchbacked John, who tries to raise crops and rabbits on his land, not knowing not that the intriguing neighbors have successfully blocked his only source of water – but read on, Manon des Sources, to see everything – finally – turn OK. The scents of Provencal herbs and descriptions of farms perched on rocky outcrops with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean will bring back memories of a vacation.
Seed ripening by Colette
Endless summers in another popular destination with British visitors – Brittany by the sea – are told in this short story of adulthood. Phil and Vinca have spent their holidays here with their respective families for as long as they can remember, enjoying sunny days, sandy limbs and “the frothy foaming foam that danced helplessly to the brink of human domination.” But now, as teenagers, they can no longer fall back into childish ways or find a new relationship. When a sophisticated elderly woman enters the scene, the high air and strong winds of this windy Atlantic coast echo the pain of adulthood. (La Colette, still unconventional, wrote what she knew – having a relationship with her teenage stepson, and then marrying a 16-year-old boy.)
If you prefer the grainy streets to the hills, this funny tale of the life of immigrants in a city subdivision by another early writer (Guène was 19 when it was published) will do the trick. Imagine one of Jacqueline Wilson’s underhanded heroines a little older, transplanted to the northeast of Paris. The narrator is Doria, 15, living in a skyscraper with her mother, her father having returned to Morocco to find a new, younger wife. Teachers are ineffective benefactors; her mother’s largely racist employer. The book’s street slang is translated into brilliantly credible urban English by translator Sarah Adams. A class nerd is called “a pizza microbe, an egocentric homosexual and total journey”. The Muslim community keeps saying inshallah – “But, thing is, you can never know whether God wants it or not,” Doria opines. The light drizzle of the city is “as if God was spitting on us all”.